ORLANDO (CBS4) – A Government attorney said Monday that SeaWorld Orlando’s policy of relying on trainers to recognize when a killer whale poses a safety threat leaves gaps that can lead to injury or death, supporting safety citations issued to the theme park after a trainer’s death.
The theme park argued at the hearing before an administrative law judge that the three citations are unfounded. They were issued after trainer Dawn Brancheau was pulled underwater by an orca last year and drowned. The park also was fined $75,000. Brancheau died Feb. 24, 2010, when a killer whale named Tilikum grabbed her hair and violently dragged her underwater. The medical examiner said she drowned and suffered traumatic injuries.
“Whales are large, powerful,” said John Black, an attorney for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
SeaWorld attorney Carla Gunnin said the resort has a history of rescuing marine animals and is a leader in marine mammal research.
Administrative Law Judge Ken Welsch said his role was simply to decide the merit of the three OSHA citations given to SeaWorld, not to rule on questions about keeping marine mammals in captivity.
About a half-dozen protesters had gathered outside with signs that said “Throw the Book at SeaWorld” and “Stop Imprisoning Orcas.”
Brancheau’s husband and his lawyers attended the hearing, ready to attempt to block OSHA if it chooses to show videos and photos taken during the trainer’s death. Family members have argued showing them would be a violation of privacy. A federal judge last week ruled that OSHA may use the images at the hearing if attorneys choose to do so.
The government’s first witness, SeaWorld animal training curator Kelly Flaherty Clark, testified that in a 25-year review of whale behavior she couldn’t find a case, other than Brancheau’s death, when there weren’t environmental or animal cues that would explain an animal’s undesirable behavior. While trainers learn about what to do if they fall into the water with a whale, Clark said she never anticipated Tilikum pulling a trainer into the water.
Under questioning from Black, Clark said trainers sign a document acknowledging their own skills are responsible for their safety. She also conceded there are calculated risks to being a trainer.
“Trainers are trained for different scenarios,” Clark said. “You have to recognize everything in the environment. It may be behavior. It may be weather.”
The first of the three citations by OSHA claimed SeaWorld exposed its workers to drowning hazards and the chance of being struck during interactions with killer whales. The federal agency noted in the citation that Tilikum also was involved in the death of a trainer at a marine park in British Columbia in 1991. The agency recommended putting physical barriers between trainers and killer whales.
The second citation said SeaWorld failed to install a stairway railing system on the stage in Shamu Stadium, where the killer whale show, “Believe,” took place. The citation said a section of the stage without a railing had a 10-foot drop.
A third citation said SeaWorld failed to equip outdoor electrical receptacles in Shamu Stadium with weatherproof enclosures.
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